Rap music and Cities

[version française]

Cities and urban life seems to be of importance when it comes to the local adoption of worldwide HipHop. Rap music reveals a strong link to specific cities, neighborhoods and blocks. It furthermore suggests a certain cultural reading and representation of urban environment with the ghetto, housing projects, urban misery and crime, shady spots and backyards. It was even argued that this urban imagination is a crucial element which decides about realness, the credibility of authentic HipHop1.

I have been interested in the relationship between Rap and cities for a long time. When I finally picked it up in a research on Marseille, it became evident that the Rapresentations of Marseille do not merely mirror a rap-typical urban representation but express stories, figures, narratives and symbols that seem to be specific for this very city and its “cultural texture”2.

Marseilles’ lights…

I want to give two prominent examples in regards to the group IAM. The first is their hit in 1994 « Je danse le Mia » that recounts ironically Marseilles’ disco-evenings in the 1980s3. One sequence of the famous video-clip is striking, which leaves the lyrics and its dominant disco-scenery behind and shows a pub group of old men. Most important is the speech sample « on francais on dit guinche » which is transferred into the pub setting and spoken through the barkeeper.

Interestingly, the sample is a short extract from the film Marius by Marcel Pagnol (Pagnol, 1929) that establishes the imagination of an idyllic and exotic Marseilles, a rural-harmonic city with wildly gesturing inhabitants that speak with a strong accent and hang around in pubs. Even before Pagnol, artists from Paris portray the Marseillan for a national audience as a strange and amusing fellow4. The often-quoted tendency of swaggering and bragging surpasses the stages and cinemas and enters even into legitimate dictionaries – for example the Dictionaire Littré certifies the Marseillan in 1957 an « exaltation révolutionnaire »5.

Le Parler de Marseille, by Jean Jaque

When in the mid-1990s a new surge of dictionaries about the Marseille slang came up, like Les càcous. Le Parler de marseille6, the Mia is included as a new variant of the Càcou. Moreover, the Mia appears in the crime stories of Jean-Claude Izzo7 where the descriptions of the Mia are exactly quoted from the IAM lyrics. In short: IAM’s Mia stands in an ancestral line of popular figures that sought to represent a typical Marseillan and that are part of the historically fed specific cultural imaginations of Marseille.

…and shadows

The second example where IAM refer to specific city narratives is « Sachet Blanc » from 1995. Its tremendous thematic and atmospheric difference with « Je danse le Mia » stands paradigmatically for the reorientation of IAM after the sell-out discussion associated with the big Mia success. Addressing the trade with heroin, the clip of « Sachet Blanc » shows a dark Marseille which is dominated by night scenes, a gloomy and hostile place where drugs are being traded.

Showing Marseille as a drug city, IAM take up an idea which can be traced back to historical events, as well as their fictionalization in crime films. Due to mafia activities, as early as the 1920s Marseille was referred to as Chicago français and gave a convenient setting for crime films and -novels which has furthered the bad reputation of the city since. Crucial for the history of drug-trading is the fact, that Marseille was a reloading point for heroin export to the USA between 1948 and 19728.

In the sixties, the cinematographic Marseille is the emblematic ville noire. Three out of four movies shot in Marseille can be assigned to the genre of crime films, respectively the film noir. Besides French films like Borsalino (1970) the most famous is the Hollywood movie French Connection 1 (1971) et 2 (1975). And even the one and only movie of Germany’s most famous television-series Tatort (1985) takes place in Marseille.

As with the Mia, in « Sachet Blanc » IAM recur to dominant imaginations of the city. This gloomy atmosphere is taken up with the following album Ecole du micro d’argent (1997) – significantly announced by L’Affiche as « album quasi anti-mia »9.

IAM’s city of crime is paralleled with the simultaneous boom of the polar marseillais in the 1990s, a local variant of the roman noir. In a similar way to the film noir and some of IAM rap songs10, the roman noir portrays Marseille as a gloomy city. These genres somehow suit the city-specific narratives of Marseille. Furthermore, the far-spread imagination of crime city provides IAM’s murky urban narratives with authenticity and makes them tellable for Marseille.

Black Paris?

Taken together these two examples (there are certainly more), one can attest a strong interconnection between the stories told in Rap and specific narratives and ideas of Marseille that are historically rooted and culturally transmitted. It would be interesting to see if a similar relationship exists for other cities and its respective Rap music. What about Dakar, Algier, New York, or: Paris?

Le Paris Noir, by Pascal Blanchard, Éric Deroo, et Gilles Manceron (dir.)

At a first glimpse, it is primarily the fringe of Paris that is highlighted in Rap. Certainly the many banlieues like Sarcelles, Vitry and St. Denis. But what about the city centre? Is Paris already too posh and clean, invaded by the most mainstream cinematic genre of love movies, that it is no longer a serious reference point for local rappers? After having seen the importance of Marseille for the stylization of IAM, I would be curious to know if there are stories, genres, legends and figures existing that relate to specificities of the French capital.

A first hint in this direction may be the song « Mes 2 amours » of Mc Jean Gab’1 (2003). It talks about certain districts like Barbès, places like Les Halles and the football club PSG. Furthermore, the song takes up the title of Josephine Baker’s hit « J’ai deux amours » (1931) that marks her musical breakthrough in 1930s Paris.

In the broadest sense, this little quotation leads to the historically important role of Paris as home of black and African culture. Are there other references to the cultural repertoire of Black Paris in Rap music that make the French capital a specific place? Are there ideas, stories, figures and influences that are genuine for Paris or Marseille and that would not be even conceivable for other cities?

  1. Gabriele Klein / Malte Friedrich, Is this real? Die Kultur des HipHop, Frankfurt am Main, Edition Suhrkamp, 2003, p. 7-11. []
  2. Rolf Lindner, « The Cultural Texture of the City », Paper from the ESF-LiU Conference Cities and Media: Cultural Perspectives on Urban Identities in a Mediatized World, Vadstena 25–29 October 2006, http://www.ep.liu.se/ecp_home/index.en.aspx?issue=020 []
  3. Jean-Marie Jacono, « Ce que révèle l’analyse musicale de rap: l’example de Je danse le mia d’IAM », Copyright Volume !, Vol.3-2 (2004-2). Paris, p. 43-53. []
  4. Daniel Winkler, Transit Marseille. Filmgeschichte einer Mittelmeermetropole, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2007, p. 74. []
  5. Michel Samson, « Une ville cachée derrière les galéjades », Le Monde, 15.10.1998. []
  6. Jean Jaque, Les càcous. Le parler de Marseille, Aubéron: Accolade, 1996. []
  7. Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Khéops, Paris: Gallimard, 1995, p. 104. []
  8. Alfred McCoy, Marseille sur héroïne. Les beaux jours de la French Connection (1945-1975), Paris : L’Esprit frappeur, 1999. []
  9. Olivier Cachin, « IAM. L’empire contre-attaque », L’Affiche, Mars 1997, No. 45. []
  10. « Demain c’est loin » []

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